What’s Expected From Lamar Jackson In 2017?

    After stumbling badly down the stretch in 2016, Louisville and Heisman QB Lamar Jackson are hoping to chart a new course before starting the 2017 season.

    March 30, 2017

    After stumbling badly down the stretch in 2016, Louisville and Heisman QB Lamar Jackson are hoping to chart a new course before starting the 2017 season.

    Lamar Jackson’s second season as the Louisville quarterback was both remarkable and oddly flat on the back end. And the inconsistency that marked his 2016 campaign begs an obvious question—is he the wunderkind who eviscerated defenses through the first nine games or the still-raw playmaker who was largely contained over the final four? Or, as is most likely the case, some amalgam of both realities?

    It was a tale of two distinctly different sophomore seasons for Jackson, tightly packaged into a four-month span. On the one hand, he was one of the gleaming young faces of college football, piling up gaudy numbers, consistently generating viral moments and becoming the first Cardinal to ever win the Heisman Trophy. On the other, he carried a question mark instead of an exclamation point into the offseason.

    Jackson’s final kick was arguably the least inspiring in the history of Heisman winners. Over his final four games, he completed less than 50% of his passes and he accounted for only six of his total 51 touchdowns. Jackson’s two worst rushing efforts and three lowest passer ratings occurred in that final, forgettable stretch. Oh, and the Cards dropped their last three games, losing to rival Kentucky as Jackson threw three picks and getting crushed by Houston and LSU in the Citrus Bowl.

    Now what?

    For starters, the frontman is going to need more help from his teammates in 2017. No excuses, but Jackson’s protection was awful a year ago, allowing an ACC-high 47 sacks and mimicking a red and white swinging gate over the final month. Assistant Mike Summers has been brought in from Florida to make sense of a rickety O-line that’s looking for three new starters.

    At the skill positions, no one really struck fear in the hearts of ACC defenses a year ago. And that figures to become a trend in 2017 now that last season’s starting back, Brandon Radcliff, and the team’s top three pass-catchers are gone. After accounting for nearly 74% of the offense, Jackson might be forced once again to be a one-man gang. If so, he’ll need to iron out the wrinkles in his game, because opposing defenses appeared to have caught up to him last November and December.

    “This is going to be an important offseason,” admits Jackson. “I know that. I have to make better decisions, and learning the system even better is a real priority for me. I’m always working on my passing with the coaches, my footwork and my mechanics. You can expect to see me working more within the pocket and directly under center than I did last year.”

    Jackson spending more time in the pocket would be a curious coaching decision, considering he’s scariest outside that area and the Cardinals could struggle again to keep the region clean. Jackson led all FBS quarterbacks with 1,571 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in 2016. And when he hits a hint of daylight, he’s got the 4.3 jets to split the seams like a punt returner facing shaky coverage. But head coach Bobby Petrino and the rest of the Louisville staff fully recognize that if Jackson plateaus as a passer, defenses will simply stack the box to neutralize his legs.

    Houston and LSU dared Jackson to beat them with his powerful arm, pressing up athletic linebackers and DBs, and each team limited him to 33 yards on the ground. Now, that doesn’t guarantee that any of Louisville’s 2017 opponents will similarly corral the dynamic dual-threat, but it will serve as a valuable blueprint for everyone from Purdue and Kentucky to Clemson and Florida State to attempt to follow.

    The encouraging news for Jackson is that he’s still extremely young, easy to forget based on the heights he reached in 2016. He’s just two years removed from Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School, and his hunger for improvement has not been extinguished by the incessant attaboys and high-calorie meals native to the awards circuit he’s been on since December.

    Jackson is focused and willing to do whatever is necessary to become a more complete quarterback this year. Work ethic and a dogged determination are not concerns around campus. Throwing mechanics and pocket patience will certainly be integral parts of his evolution, as will working through his progressions and sharpening his ball placement.

    Jackson has had his back slapped plenty, ever since engineering a Week 3 demolition of Florida State. However, he’s also heard his critics, which grew in size as the Cardinals slumped to the finish line. There was the anonymous ACC coach who opined that Jackson has no shot of playing quarterback on Sundays. And there was also the uncontained buzz that Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have coasted to a Heisman win had ballots been cast at the end of the postseason.

    Jackson is aware of his detractors, and he’s using them like a well-timed block that springs him into open space.

    “My only focus this season is on winning a national championship,” says Jackson, refusing to even comment on his potential interest level for the 2018 NFL Draft. “The way last year ended, the things that some people have said. I’m using it all as motivation for this season.

    Jackson made history a season ago with a tantalizing array of physical skills and breathtaking plays. This fall, he’ll have a chance to rewrite history by joining Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the game’s only two-time Heisman recipient. But the bar is significantly higher today than it was at this time last year, and there’s no chance of catching anyone off guard. Jackson must improve in the pocket, both for his own future in the game and for the fate of his Cardinal team. If he’s unable to take the next step, primarily as a downfield passer, Louisville’s brutal finish to 2016 could end up being a harbinger of things to come in 2017.

    MORE: Louisville Has New Weapons Ready To Emerge For Lamar Jackson


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